Bridging the Gap of Employee Fear and Uncertainty

Do you ever drive your car across an extended bridge and feel just a bit of anxiety as you reach the middle? That’s exactly the sense of vulnerability that many employees are experiencing in companies affected by the COVID-19 virus. They are crossing a span of disruptions and uncertainty created by remote work, social distancing, and pay cuts and furloughs. They're eager to reach the other 

In the next month, some businesses may reopen and social distancing policies are likely to be relaxed. But as these transitions happen and normalcy returns – whatever that looks and feels like –employees can expect that the work life and regimen they left several weeks ago, will not be the same.

Why? Because organizations face numerous logistical and psychological challenges as they reintroduce people to workplaces. Job one is staging a work environment that is both safe and productive for all employees – whether onsite or virtually. Mix in the possibilities of workforce reductions and changes to teams or roles, and your culture quickly becomes a petri dish of stress and distraction.

What Got Us Here Won’t Get it Done

If you accept the premise that this pandemic and its impact on lives is unprecedented, then it's easy to embrace the idea that managing employees through this return to work demands a response that goes far beyond the status quo for internal communications programs.

These times call for urgency, modeling or accountability, so leaders and managers will need to communicate openly and often, most likely in ways that push them out of their comfort zones. That’s because real engagement means connecting with both the hearts and minds of employees and it’s the secret sauce for reclaiming their trust and productivity.

There are three major approaches that will help organizations to navigate this bumpy ride of change and renew a healthy work environment. These concepts aren’t new or glitzy, but rather, a return to fundamentals that will enhance performance and mitigate uncertainty.

Listen and Adapt 

  • Create surveys and listening events to hear employee concerns. Not just once, but consistently over the next year. Then adapt your plans, actions and messaging to address them with honesty.
  • Involve employees from every level of the organization in your ideation and planning processes. Encourage their inputs and rely on them to carry information back to teams in ways that generate credibility. Make them feel a part of the solution.
  • Prepare for a long journey. There are no shortcuts and moving the needle on employee trust will involve a sustained effort over months, not weeks. Buckle up and view this not as an intervention or initiative, but the company's new way of leading and communicating.

Communicate with Clarity

  • Leaders and managers will need to communicate more openly and often than ever before. This doesn’t mean a barrage of gratuitous emails or speeches, but it will require a strategic cadence of messages and tools for managers shaped by the communications team.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of that employee and acknowledge what they’re feeling. Reinforce their concerns for safety and health, and explain where the company is today and where it’s going. Even if employees feel like their trudging through a fog, shining a light on the path in front of them will help them feel more confident.
  • Share both good news and bad news in a timely way. Employees may be reluctant to hear about impending workforce changes or company challenges, but they respect management handling it in a transparent way and, most importantly, explaining the “why?”

Recognize and Reward:

  • Continue to share examples of what good looks like and feature the people who are making it happen. This is an excellent tonic for what ails a culture and reminds employees that the mission and strategy are still intact and they’re working toward a higher purpose.
  • Put new incentives and rewards in place during this time of crisis to help reinforce desired attitudes and behaviors. It’s not business as usual around here, so your approach to recognition shouldn’t be either.

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial for communicators to lead boldly by leaning into the fundamentals of change communications and counseling leaders. It’s the best way to bridge the gap of employee fear and uncertainty and restore stability in the organization.

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